SEATTLE — 10 thoughts after the Chicago Bears got a scoring drive from their starters on the game’s first possession and didn’t look back in a 27-11 victory over the Seattle Seahawks Thursday night at Lumen Field.
Kmet was productive in Fields’ rookie season and the tight end was easily the No. 2 target behind wide receiver Darnell Mooney for the quarterback. Kmet was targeted 52 times by Fields and made 32 receptions for 330 yards in 2021. That accounted for roughly half of his production (60 receptions for 612 yards), which stands to reason as Fields played in 12 games with 10 starts.
The pair got going right away Thursday with Kmet catching a screen pass for 12 yards on the first play from scrimmage during a 10-play, 52-yard drive that led to a 35-yard Cairo Santos field goal. Offensive coordinator Luke Getsy seemed to want to have Fields get the ball out of his hand quickly, and that led to quick throws to the perimeter like this one.
But on a shot downfield, Fields faked a handoff and rolled out to his left to catch Kmet wide open in the middle for a 19-yard gain. It would be a big breakthrough for Getsy, Fields, Kmet and everyone else is this can be a more regular thing.
“It builds your confidence,” Kmet said. “All the work you put in through the offseason, the experience I’ve been having these past two years, it continues to grow each game we play. It feels good.”
There have been stories galore about production needed from the tight end position. When Kmet and Jimmy Graham were teamed up. When Adam Shaheen was drafted in Round 2. And before that. But there hasn’t been a break out.
“It was just a naked play,” Fields said of the long gain. “And just went through progressions, so he was my second read and he was open. Just threw him the ball.
“Cole’s a great tight end. He can do pretty much all. He can block. He’s a great route runner. He has great hands, so he definitely brings another weapon to our offense for sure. I was glad to see him out there.”
Fields is going to need that sure-handed target in the middle of the field. And if the Bears aren’t trying to take the top off a defense with the speed of Mooney on the outside, Kmet should get a lot of the targets coming off play action, which should define the passing game more this season than it did a year ago.
Fields was under pressure on the possession — the only one the offensive starters got — and coach Matt Eberflus went for it on fourth-and-2 from the Seattle 49-yard line when the Bears benefited from a neutral zone infraction penalty.
The drive stalled out when Fields floated a pass to running back Khalil Herbert in the flat and then the QB was flattened by free safety Josh Jones for a 2-yard loss.
“It was zone,” Fields explained. “I should have worked through to the middle of the field. That was my fault for sure.”
Getting a field goal was good to see — and an improvement over the performance last week against Kansas City. It’s a ridiculously small sample size. The offensive line, where the Bears are still trying to figure things out, is going to be leaky from time to time, even against a Seattle front seven that lacks a serious pass-rushing threat. Kmet had a solid season last year, but if the quarterback is going to ascend, someone other than Mooney will have to put up numbers.
In the end, the running game will key a lot of this. Successfully running the ball will keep opposing defenses honest. It will create bigger throwing windows for Fields. And it will make life easier on the line. It will feed the play-action game.
“I thought the operation was good,” Eberflus said of Fields. “His preparation was great. He handled the offense the way we wanted him to, had a nice drive and scored the field goal. It’s progress. And guys see more progress in practice sometimes, where his footwork is getting better, his delivery when he feels pressure, how he slides in the pocket and delivers the ball. He’s improving every single day.”
The regular season will provide a true status of where the offense as a whole is.
Jenkins, who played at right tackle in the preseason opener, was preparing for the short week that led the Bears to Seattle. He was sitting down for dinner when his cellphone rang. It was offensive line coach Chris Morgan.
“He said, ‘Hey, you’re going to be moving to right guard, how do you feel about that?’” Jenkins said. “I told him my feelings about that. The next day I went out there and got right guard reps. I didn’t know until the night before. That’s better than the morning of.”
There’s no arguing that. It was a brief phone conversation, maybe because Jenkins’ mind was swimming a bit, which is understandable. He doesn’t recall specifically how it went.
“I would tell you that it was more positive than anything else. That’s what I recall.”
What Jenkins, the second-round pick from a year ago, needs to do now is stack positive practices. His right guard debut for the Bears came Monday in a practice without pads. He got introduced to the position and then the next day, when the team was in full pads, he replaced veteran Michael Schofield with the starting unit — a sure sign he would be the starter vs. the Seahawks.
The Bears will likely have 13 practices before the Sept. 11 opener against the San Francisco 49ers. Half (at most) will be in pads. There is some stuff Jenkins will know without watching long to clean up, but it’s a different position. If an offensive tackle sets up on an island, a guard sets up in a phone booth.
“I’m still adjusting to the tackle to guard difference,” he said. “It’s only like the third day. I am getting used to it and I am fortunate enough to get help from Sam (Mustipher) inside and I am getting help from Larry (Borom), so it’s been a nice transition.”
Even with the help, does he have enough time to win the job and be part of the starting five?
“I feel like I can acclimate myself fast enough to be prepared,” Jenkins said. “In the NFL, it’s about production now. I need to speed up the process. Whatever gets me on the field and is best for the team I am willing to do.”
For what it’s worth, I like his attitude. There is a challenge ahead for him and it would be great for him to haveworked at guard in OTAs. The Bears probably know what they can get from Schofield. If they feel Jenkins has potential to give them more in the future without being a liability in the present — including exposing the quarterback to danger — maybe he can pull this off.
With any luck — and maybe it’s wishful thinking — Smith will be running as a participant in practice at Halas Hall next week. One thing that improves the odds of the impasse ending is that as regular season nears, the more pressure there is for a resolution.
Derwin James’ deal with the Los Angeles Chargers, which was finalized Wednesday morning, certainly doesn’t increase the chances that the Bears and Smith can find common ground on a contract extension. Both players were 2018 first-round draft picks and both began staging “hold ins” at the start of training camp. James plays safety and is represented by an NFLPA-certified agent, while Smith is operating without a registered agent. It’s difficult if not impossible to compare linebacker pay to safety pay. The $76.3 million, four-year extension made James the highest-paid safety in the league. Surely, Smith would like to leapfrog Shaquille Leonard of the Indianapolis Colts to become the NFL’s highest-paid linebacker. If what the Bears proposed (at least before Smith’s comments asking for a trade were sent to NFL Network) hit key benchmarks to achieve that, it’s probably safe to imagine a deal would have been done.
The regular season begins in 23 days for the Bears. That leaves nine practices before the first week of the regular season on Monday, Sept. 5. They will likely have four practices that week, meaning there are just 13 practices between now and the start of a new era for general manager Ryan Poles and coach Matt Eberflus. That’s plenty of time for Smith to get up to speed on defense.
As I have written previously, the Bears hold most, if not all, leverage. They have Smith under contract with the fifth-year option in his rookie deal, and at the negotiating table they can remind him they will also could use the franchise tag on him in 2023. The only real leverage for Smith is withholding his services during the regular season — and that’s where things could get very expensive for him quickly. If the Bears don’t trade Smith — and the appropriate time for Poles to do that would have been the spring — then the linebacker faces the prospect of playing for $9.735 million and inheriting the risk that an injury could affect his chances of a much larger payday in the future.
Scouts around the league I chatted with indicated the word in their circles is the Bears came with a strong offer. Of course, that could be the company line trickling out of Halas Hall. Poles did say the team’s offer included “record-setting pieces … that I thought were going to show him the respect that he deserves.”
I still believe the most likely outcome will be an extension for Smith. It’s the prudent move for him. And maybe digging in his heels will result in some concessions by the club. Smith could then consider his hold-in as a win. I think it would be mighty difficult for Poles to get good value for Smith in a trade, especially at this time. In the absence of appropriate value, it would be very difficult for Poles to stand up and declare he made the future for the Bears better by trading away a very good player who is only 25. Sure, Poles could make that declaration after trading Khalil Mack back in March, but there were other factors involved, like the future health of the salary cap. Too many signs point to the Bears and Smith sticking this thing out. Stranger things have happened, but my hunch is they find a way to make this happen. If that’s the case, the question is then when?
He spent the second half of the spring at left tackle with the starters, and it looked as if that opportunity wouldn’t happen when 11-year veteran Riley Reiff signed at the outset of training camp. Reiff quickly worked in with the first unit at left tackle, but he has been on the right side of late, givingJones a clear path to nail down the job — a remarkable development for a Day 3 pick at a marquee position.
The greatest tell to this point was when the coaches pulled Jones with the starters after 18 snaps in the preseason opener against the Kansas City Chiefs, a sign of how highly he’s viewed. It’s a rapid acceleration, even in the estimation of Southern Utah offensive line coach Aaron Fernandez, who helped recruit Jones to the FCS school.
Jones started again Thursday, coming out of the game after the field goal at the end of the opening drive.
“I would be lying a little bit if I said I didn’t have any surprise,” Fernandez said. “There is a little surprise for me maybe how quickly it has transpired, but also I have full confidence that he was the type of player that was going to get a shot and an opportunity and absolutely do with the most with it.
“That’s his personality. That’s been him since I have known him. He knew what he wanted to be. He wanted to play tackle in the NFL. To see him pouring into that process doesn’t surprise me at all. That is why I think some good things are happening.”
Jones has impressed the Bears with his athletic ability at 6-foot-5, 310 pounds and 35 ⅜-inch arms. There are questions about how well he will anchor against power and bull rushes, but the Bears believe he’s oozing with talent that can be refined and improved quickly.
“I think he has a good base and foundation,” Fernandez said. “He understands the game at a little bit different level than some other rookies, and that goes into the time and development he put in in college. I am sure he has picked the veterans’ brains a lot. He will understand the game. He will understand the angles.
“When you think of a college career, he’s the true sense of that and really committing to that process. He was a long, athletic kid in high school and he went to a high school that traditionally doesn’t win a lot of games. A lot of recruiters don’t stop there. Myself and another recruiter on staff truly felt that he just checked a lot of boxes. We felt like we had a vision for him. He had one walk-on opportunity to an FBS school (Utah) and that was it. We were the only school to see what this kid could be in a couple years with the weight room, learning, coaching, the environment of growth. We felt like this kid could really take off.
“He gravitated toward some of our best players as a freshman and I noticed that right away. How do they lift? How do they watch film? What makes them good? Some other freshmen were figuring it out daily as they went along and Braxton seemed to have more of a plan and understanding of what he wanted.”
Jones wasn’t heavily recruited out of Murray High School in Utah. He also didn’t have a lot of players around him at Utah State that brought attention to the program during a 1-10 season. Some scouts felt he was better in 2021 when he popped on the radar and earned a Senior Bowl invite. He played well in the first two games of the season against FCS schools San Jose State and Arizona State.
Whatever the case, the Bears felt fortunate he lasted until the 168th selection in Round 5 — the first of eight Day 3 picks for GM Ryan Poles. They knew they were getting an intelligent player, too, someone who could process a more difficult position in the NFL. It’s perhaps slightly unusual Jones was charged with helping to make protection calls in college, something many offensive lines leave solely to the center and quarterback.
“In our main protection system, our tackles were the first line of communication,” Fernandez said. “That goes to show how Braxton sees the game. It’s partly why he is having some of this early success — his cerebral approach. He is able to see all three levels of the defense. He was able to read safeties for us, make protection calls, and he never had a problem doing that.”
It’s a group the Bears very much want to improve and is central in coordinator Luke Getsy’s system and the development of Justin Fields.
To get a sense of what kind of teacher new offensive line coach Chris Morgan is, I touched base with retired lineman Will Montgomery, who played briefly for the Bears in 2015 before suffering a season-ending injury. Montgomery had probably his best seasons in the NFL as the starting center in Washington from 2011-2013 when Morgan was the team’s assistant line coach. It’s worth learning more about Morgan because beyond the coordinators, the offensive line coach is the most important position coach on any team.
When Morgan joined Washington in 2011, Mike Shanahan led the staff and had four assistants who are now head coaches: offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan (San Francisco 49ers), quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur (Green Bay Packers), tight ends coach Sean McVay (Los Angeles Rams) and offensive assistant Mike McDaniel (Miami Dolphins). Chris Foerster, whom Morgan counts with Tom Cable as his biggest influences in the NFL, was the O-line coach.
“Chris definitely has a history with the zone-blocking scheme even before he joined me in Washington,” Montgomery said. “You look where he came from in Oakland with Tom Cable and that zone scheme and obviously his years with the Redskins was zone scheme, including the great 2012 Alfred Morris year where somehow Alfred was the No. 2 runner in the league behind only Adrian Peterson. Then after Washington, he was back to Seattle and then Atlanta with (Kyle) Shanahan and then he gets into a man-blocking scheme with a couple years for the Steelers and now in Chicago.
“Occasionally during the pandemic, he would have me Zoom in … Chris asked me to talk about how to prepare and take care of your body. Chris Morgan is a very knowledgeable coach. He knows everything. Most of his career he’s been in the zone stuff, but no matter where you are, you run plays besides zone schemes.”
One longtime personnel man I spoke with praised Morgan for consistently pushing his players hard but in a manner that was fair. He described practices for linemen under Morgan as intense and grueling. That matched what Montgomery described.
“When you get with him in individual drills, he’s a hard charger,” Montgomery said. “You’re going to get your money’s worth out of your individual drill. And you’re going to be ready for the team, period, which means ultimately you’re going to be ready for game day. He’s a full-throttle coach. Whoever has him as a coach, they’re going to be lucky.
“Some coaches may let some of the small details slide. Chris is very detail-oriented — make sure you step with the proper foot, make sure you block each block the way it is supposed to be done. … With the proper technique, you will make the block more often than the one time you did with poor technique. In individual drills where sometimes in mid- to late-season everyone is looking at their calendar and maybe trying to plan their postseason vacation, he’s still grinding away — get to your aiming points on the zone, get the hands under and up, whatever the blocking assignment is. You can just tell from his general presence that he loves and cares about his craft.
“You can tell Chris Morgan would probably do his job for zero dollars. He just loves the game of football and loves coaching the O-line. He will coach you hard, but that doesn’t mean he will (curse you out) for no reason. He coaches you because you are a pro and you deserve to be coached. A lot of guys like that. They want to be coached. Sometimes the film session will go on and on and on and you may not get feedback. But to be better and ultimately make more money and win games, you need to refine your craft as a player and that is where he’s going to help you.”
The second-round pick had friends and family to see, and fans that saw him play nearby at the University of Washington were chanting his name, as well as Bears fans in attendance. It was a surreal experience for Gordon, who attended Archbishop Murray High in Everett, Wash., about 30 miles north of Lumen Field.
Most important, of course, was that Gordon got on the field after an injury cost him a good chunk of the first two weeks of training camp and kept him out of the Chiefs preseason game. He entered as the nickel cornerback on the second defensive snap. He wasn’t credited with a tackle in press box statistics, but Matt Eberflus thought he had a hand in a forced fumble that the statistician assigned to linebacker Joe Thomas. Gordon blitzed from the slot and nearly sacked Geno Smith. The rookie looked quick redirecting to chase him to the sideline.
“I dipped down a little bit too far,” Gordon said. “I am going to get him next time – whoever it is.”
What struck me about Gordon is he has the confidence of a seasoned veteran at cornerback. Doubt can’t creep in for players at that position and he doesn’t feel like he’s skipped a beat even after missing nearly half of the offseason program with an undisclosed injury.
“Film, being with coaches, being locked in on the sidelines and being able to take those mental reps at every position I play,” Gordon said. “That’s been so important. Extra time, extra stuff and that’s why I don’t feel behind.”
We’ve seen the Bears shift Gordon from outside cornerback to nickel and vice versa. Since getting back on the field, he’s been focused at nickel.
“We’ll look at both things — putting him on the outside and still keeping him on the inside,” Eberflus said. “We really like him on the inside but certainly he’s going to play on the outside too.”
It says a lot about Gordon’s ability to process information that he’s clearly the Week 1 starting nickel. It’s an advanced position with a lot of rules and responsibilities, more than just playing on the outside.
“The stuff they taught me has really translated all over to the NFL,” Gordon said of his college experience. “A lot of the rules are the same. It’s the same type of leverages. The terminology changed but other than that, it really hasn’t been anything crazy.”
He has made stops in the AAF, XFL, the Spring League, CFL and USFL, and now the former Ole Miss linebacker believes he has a chance — his best to date — to battle for an NFL job.
Gates was named to the All-USFL team this spring. He helped the Birmingham Stallions to the championship, totaling 68 tackles, 6 ½ sacks, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery with an interception, putting together the type of game film that would get him a chance with an NFL club in training camp.
Gates had previous NFL opportunities, just never for long. After leading the SEC in solo tackles in 2017, Gates went undrafted in 2018 but received a contract from the Cleveland Browns. They released him after a month. In 2019, he spent two months with Washington during the spring before being cut loose. The Vikings signed him in 2020, but he was released early in training camp, which was far from normal with COVID-19 protocols in place.
In between brief looks from those NFL teams, Gates suited up for the Memphis Express (AAF), Houston Roughnecks (XFL), TSL Blues (The Spring League), Saskatchewan Roughriders (CFL) and the Stallions. Then the call came from the Bears.
So imagine his dismay when he nearly didn’t make it to the Aug. 5 tryout with three other linebackers. Gates was set to travel from Atlanta on Aug. 4, but his flight that evening was delayed multiple times before it eventually was canceled. The first flight out the next morning was overbooked, and his chances on standby status didn’t look good.
“I was about to (leave the Atlanta airport),” Gates said. “I was just tired and you’re disappointed because those opportunities come seldomly. But something just told me to stick it out.”
At the last minute, Gates’ name was called and he was the last person to board the flight, which arrived at O’Hare at 11 a.m.
“I got off the plane and didn’t even grab my suitcase (at baggage claim),” he said. “I had my carry-on with my cleats and gloves in it and went straight to the car and had a sandwich during the ride because I wasn’t able to eat that morning. Got (to Halas Hall), changed real quick.”
The Bears signed Gates and arranged to get his suitcase from the airport.
“I have been around the block, that’s for sure,” Gates said. “I feel like this is going to be a great opportunity. I have been telling the coaches and players I have never been to any training camp (for so long). This is my first real opportunity to show in pads on the NFL level what I can do. I never got to the nitty-gritty of training camp.”
With bonuses, Gates earned about $5,500 per week in the USFL before taxes. So it has been a challenge to make a living in fledgling minor-league operations, some of which have come and gone quickly. The 26-year-old didn’t abandon hope. When he had a standout season for the Stallions, he figured that only enhanced his NFL odds.
“Most definitely,” Gates said. “But speaking about playing well, I think I played well in all of the other leagues as well. I have been trying to stack up games and improve my technique. I just knew that I had to stay patient and my opportunity was going to come sooner or later.
“In my eyes, I’ve been the best linebacker in the league everywhere I have gone. I’m just waiting on that real opportunity, like I said, getting in pads here and showing I can play. It’s going to pop sooner or later.”
Gates made five tackles, two of them for losses against the Seahawks. In Week 1 of the preseason, Gates had three tackles (one for loss) and a tackle on special teams, logging 26 snaps on defense and nine on special teams. The Bears have some experienced depth at linebacker, especially if Roquan Smith returns. Matt Adams has played in the scheme and is in position to play the strong side in the base defense. Joe Thomas has been a core special teams player in the league for seven seasons. Caleb Johnson had a very good rookie season on special teams for the Bears, and undrafted rookie free agent Jack Sanborn has been regularly around the ball.
Coach Matt Eberflus has favored long, athletic linebackers — and Gates is that at 6-foot-2, 221 pounds. He runs well too. His best chance to make the team is probably flashing repeatedly for special teams coordinator Richard Hightower.
“Within this business, you have your ups and downs,” Gates said, reflecting on how he has remained motivated. “Sometimes you get disappointed wondering why things are not working out for you. My agent reminds me about James Harrison; he went through a storm too. Got cut multiple times. He’s going to be a Hall of Famer. If this is something you really want, you just have to stay the course. This is definitely something I want. I’ve been playing since I was 4 years old. I know what I signed up for.
“Doubt has definitely crept in on occasion. Sometimes you don’t get those answers for why — why I’m not getting it. It’s a business. They tell you you are doing well but it’s like, ‘If I am doing well what’s the problem? Why am I being released?’ But if you really want it, you know that you’ve got to keep your head down, keep focused and keep grinding it out. Opportunity is going to come. Sometimes God wants to see if you really want it — if it’s really what you have been asking for. Hopefully they will make the decision to keep me around.”
A young lineman might get a brief look in the preseason finale at Cleveland, but anything more than that would be unusual.
“We’re going to look at that,” Eberflus said of his gameplan. “We’ll evaluate our football team and see where we are. I’ll have a coordinators’ meeting sometime (Saturday) and we’ll get everybody’s opinion and go from there.”
The NFL reduced the preseason slate from four to three games last summer. The vast majority of coaches treat exhibition No. 3 in the same manner they previously handled exhibition No. 4. That means backups across the board on both sides of the ball. The Bears’ offensive starters got 18 snaps last week against Kansas City, and a couple snaps in Cleveland isn’t going to make a difference for Fields or Mooney or linebacker Nicholas Morrow or anyone, unless that play leads to an injury that could force a player out.
“I feel ready (for the regular season),” left guard Cody Whitehair said. “The coaches do a great job preparing us in practice. The routine that we go through is a good dress rehearsal for the season. Our camp has been good. It’s been intense. I feel ready to go.”
Free safety Eddie Jackson echoed that sentiment, noting the practice tempo.
“There are a few things to clean up but — yeah — we’re ready,” Jackson said. “The way we practice, it’s high speed and high tempo and we’re flying around. So it’s kind of like a game.”
Eberflus wants to treat the coming week like an actual game week in terms of the schedule each day and having it replicate what a normal regular-season plan will be like. From that standpoint, he wants his starters to be dialed in, but there is no sense in risking injuries in Cleveland.
He busted off a 48-yard punt return against the Seahawks. Drawing comparisons to Devin Hester would not be fair to the all-time great or to Jones, but on that one return, he really did look a little like Hester. Sets up the nearest defender, makes a quick cut and then hits the gas down the sideline. It was impressive.
“I got the ball and there was a defender to me and he was a bigger body, like a linebacker body (former Bears linebacker Joey Iyiegbuniwe),” Jones said. “So I just made a quick move off him and got to the sideline where I could see where my blockers were. I just let everything fall (in place) from there.”
Jones fumbled — then recovered — the opening kickoff return of the game, something that will no doubt be harped on in meetings.
“To get out there and get my feet wet and actually have some film I can watch of myself, that’s a great feeling and I can’t wait for the next,” he said. “I feel good about those returns. I can’t be dropping the ball and putting the ball on the ground. I got it back so that was a positive.
“I can smile now. I know what to expect. I wasn’t the first to fumble and I won’t be the last to fumble in this league. It’s all about short memory. If you allow that to creep on you, it will affect your next play, and you never know your next play might be your biggest play. You’ve got to have that short-term memory, especially in this game. That’s something I have, and I thank God for it.”
Jones caught one pass for four yards. Considering the time he’s missed, integrating him on offense might take a little time but it’s no doubt in the works.
“He’s a do-it-all guy,” Fields said. “He’s a physical guy, I think he weighs like 210 (200) at receiver, and you don’t see it from a guy his height. What he’s able to do with the ball in his hands, he’s almost like a running back playing receiver. He’s a great weapon that we have on offense, and we’re going to find ways to give him the ball this year, for sure.”
The Denver Broncos, Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers were represented. Scouts from six NFL clubs were in attendance at the first preseason game, including the 49ers and Packers, who the Bears will face the first two weeks.
10a. Linebackers Matt Adams (right shoulder) and Caleb Johnson (knee) and running back Trestan Ebner (ankle) left with injuries in the first half. Near the end of the game, cornerback Jaylon Jones and defensive end Charles Snowden went out and appeared to be injured. The team didn’t share any details. Fullback Khari Blasingame was held out and he has a hand injury.
10b. Players that were held out who don’t have known injuries include running back David Montgomery, cornerback Kindle Vildor (who returned to practice last week), defensive tackle Justin Jones and defensive lineman Mario Edwards.
10c. The Bears return to practice at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Halas Hall, the final training camp workout that is open to the public. It was originally scheduled for 10 a.m., but the team pushed it back, surely to account for what will be an early-morning arrival Friday from Seattle. It will be the first of five practices before the preseason finale Aug. 27 at Cleveland.